Four Thousand Words for Seven Figures

This is the kind of industry news headline that makes book-publishing people extremely uncomfortable. Bi-polar even.

Because while perhaps factually accurate, the “Book Sells for Big Money” report is all sizzle. There is a certain exultation for writers and agents and editors and publishers that comes with high profile recognition. But with no acknowledgement of the care and feeding of the intellectual animal that had to be slaughtered and grilled to provide that sizzle, despair often follows.

There is nothing headier and ego boosting than having your name all over a BIG DEAL! Knowing that all of your friends, but more importantly your frienemies, are reading about how awesome you are to have snake-charmed more than a million dollars from a multinational corporation just by suggesting that an article could simply be expanded into a book is a rush.

But what these sorts of,,,,, etc. bits of information also do is perpetuate what a politician would call an “untruth.”

It’s the lie that writing is simply a matter of pulling together some sort of critical mass of words and simply arranging them in the right order. That given the right idea, anyone can do it.

Like amateur spec screenwriters in the 1990s, many believe that their idea requires just a good three-day weekend’s worth of intense effort. These intellectual Shane Black’s will conjure up a killer piece akin to Malcolm Gladwell’s 4,000-word burst in the June 3, 1996 edition of The New Yorker.

The facts that,

  1. the first iteration of The Tipping Point took more than a decade to come together and that;
  1. Gladwell had to find a talented literary agent capable of massaging the piece so that a book editor would be convinced that it was more than just a magazine article;

are the stuff that gets cut from industry news bits. If investigated at all.

After dissecting the evolution of The Tipping Point piece, here, here, here, here, here, and here about what it took Gladwell to do what he did should be pretty clear to us all by now. It certainly required more work than a three day weekend.

But what of the agent?

How did Gladwell manage the business of converting his 4,000 words into the aforementioned seven-figure deal?

Gladwell didn’t get a “name” agent when he decided to put together a proposal for an expansion of The Tipping Point into a book. Not that he didn’t want a big macher of an agent. I’m sure if one had approached him, he would have been over the moon and probably would have signed up straightaway.

But I suspect no one called Gladwell. Few agents back in 1996 even had email…

The reason why is that big agents don’t “chase” clients.  They wait for referrals.  Chasing clients sucks because it puts the agent in an inferior position from the writer from the very start of the relationship.  And trust me.  No one wants agents who believe that they are “lesser than” their clients.  They want an agent who is “out of their league” and to hold them in a certain benign contempt (like a parent/child relationship). Our lesser selves want Sauron to be our agent, not Frodo.

But what’s more interesting I think is that I seriously doubt that Gladwell ran around town with seven extra copies of the June 3, 1996 New Yorker in his messenger bag pursuing Andrew Wylie or Esther Newberg.

That is, it seems to me that he didn’t want to write a book length treatment of The Tipping Point just to get a Big Deal! He actually wanted to write the book because he was interested in exploring the idea some more. The work is what drove him, not the potential benefits from the work.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t enjoy the benefits today.  It’s just that I think he still would have written the rest of his stuff even if The Tipping Point never tipped.

Sounds like a small thing, but it’s not. Gladwell was in love with the work, so he did what pros do when they need an agent. He found someone through a personal relationship (most likely a friend or acquaintance of Jacob Weisberg) who introduced him to someone he liked and respected.

[A bit of a disclaimer here: I’m fuzzy on the chain of people that led him to her and I had to stop myself from contacting Gladwell or his agent Tina Bennett to get the origin story. Part of the challenge I took on with this project was to write about Gladwell and The Tipping Point by using only the resources afforded any other person—the Internet. It’s more fun to puzzle it all together and admit some missing pieces than to get the “right answers” sometimes. More fun for me anyway.]

So Malcolm Gladwell created a proposal (either a written or verbal pitch with The New Yorker piece as his writing sample) with an inexperienced agent at the Janklow and Nesbit Agency named Tina Bennett. (Tina Bennett now works at William Morris Endeavor)

The heads of the agency, Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit, are titans in book publishing. They were then and still are now.

But Bennett at the time, in 1996, was a self described “lapsed academic” transitioning into a new career. She had some highfalutin schools on her resume with post-graduate degrees, but little “real world” experience. What she did know (and still does) was how to recognize a great idea and a charismatic writer. And obviously Gladwell is comfortable with academics (his father being one), so the two of them probably talked about a whole bunch of stuff that was all the rage in wonky academic circles at the time and hit if off.

Then together, a writer in search of his first book deal and his newbie agent put together an irresistible pitch. It probably went something like this:

The Tipping Point isn’t just something that explains broken windows criminology theory or how people contract colds…it’s also a driving force behind what makes something “cool” and wildly appealing to a mass audience.

The New Yorker piece is just one element of a book that will explore the “tipping” phenomenon in the commercial marketplace. And in entertainment too, like what makes Sesame Street so popular with kids…or even what makes a bestselling book. The book length version is going to be about how the tipping point phenomenon transforms a product like Hush Puppies from shoe brand in its last gasp to the cool thing to wear at the Short Hills Mall.

And Gladwell’s just the guy to do it. He was a working journalist at The Washington Post for over ten years (clips available) and he’s now a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Pretty good pitch.

Okay, so here’s the thing about book publishing (and Hollywood and Washington D.C. and Silicon Valley and any other human hierarchy for that matter). It doesn’t matter if you are Joe Schmoe from Kokomo or the sleaziest person on the planet…buyers of ideas will do a deal as long as you have two things.

One of them might be enough to get a small deal, but you need two if you really want the big bucks.

Here are the two things:

  1. A perfect idea that is brilliantly executed…this is the actually work on the page or the pitch on the lips…the story or the concept or the proposal or whatever. If it’s great, it will find a receptive audience. And chances are it will find at least one of the major players in your chosen industry to take it on.

But in order for you to get a big deal, and that usually requires far more than one player of the Big Five publishing companies to go nuts for it to generate a bidding war, you need:

  1. Credentials, or platform, or backstory as the personality behind the idea that will be irresistible fodder for publicity and marketing. You need to have gone to Harvard (instant third party validation that you are a special kind of star-bellied Sneetch) or any of those other big deal schools. Or you need to be on staff at The New Yorker or worked at Goldman Sachs or Ralph Lauren or Julliard or the Nick Bollettieri Academy or Carnegie Hall.

Or even better, if you dropped out of Harvard or quit The New Yorker or Goldman Sachs because you weren’t being “challenged” enough…but not a departure in too public of a way so that your reputation as a genius is overwhelmed by your other reputation as a megalomaniac.  You are a “reasonable genius” at least until you hit some product or idea out of the ballpark…in Steve Jobs’ case it took a whole slew of product grand slams to eclipse his cranky reputation.

Or you were “almost homeless” and now you’re a billionaire. Or you were a drug addict who ends up as a U.S. Senator… You get it.

As Stephen Sondheim wrote…”You gotta get a gimmick.” It’s an old song.  Thousands of years old even though it was written in the 1950s.

So Gladwell has both requirements (great idea and The New Yorker and Washington Post on his resume) and while he doesn’t have Mort Janklow representing him, he has someone Mort Janklow tapped as brilliant (and she is too, which is nice) representing him.

Now what?

What does the agent literally do to convert 4,000 words into seven figures?

That’s up next.

5 comments on “Four Thousand Words for Seven Figures

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Another great post! Your insider’s view of the industry along with your research adds up to a fascinating ride. The takeaway for me this time was the reminder that you’ve got to be in love with the work. “Sounds like a small thing, but it’s not.” Amen. As always, thanks!

  2. Write for the love of the work, not the benefits of selling the work. Yes, oh yes.

    Appreciate the hands-off approach to this, the not going behind the curtain in ways others might not have access to. It all feels more real.

  3. A. R. Arias says:

    Good stuff, Shawn. So far I’ve got the love for the work and the almost homeless thing down to a science.

  4. Deena Keeler says:

    What was the response when Gladwell’s agent took it out into the market? Was it an immediate bidding war, or did it take some time? As an aside, my youngest brother taught at Bollettieri’s. What a fascinating place.

  5. Lindsey Winterton says:

    Gimmick…. Average, middle class, standard career…no, nope, nay. “Sick in a dark room for 12 years” is my best offer. Woof! Amazon £0.99 here I come!

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